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New alcohol and drug strategy aims to prevent and reduce harm caused by substance abuse

Pictured at the launch are (l-r) Health Minister Robin Swann; Sonya Johnston, Acting Addiction Services Manager; Lynsey Graham, Service User and Roisin Coulter, Chief Executive for South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust.

Health Minister Robin Swann has announced the launch of Northern Ireland’s new alcohol and drug strategy.

Speaking during a visit to the Recovery Garden in Ards Community Hospital, the Minister said:

“The aim of this new strategy is to prevent and reduce the harm related to substance use in Northern Ireland. The strategy has been co-produced by my Department, working in partnership with key stakeholders, both inside and outside government, including service users and their families. I would like to thank all those who have helped us to get this strategy finalised. The fact that my Department has pushed forward with this work in the middle of the COVID pandemic is a reflection of the importance we place on tackling the harms around substance use.

“We are continually reminded of the suffering and tragedy that alcohol and other drugs cause to individuals, families, and communities across Northern Ireland. The cost of alcohol related harm alone is estimated to be as much as £900 million every year. Add in the cost of the harms from other drugs and the figure is well over £1bn annually.”

Minister Swann went on to highlight that cross departmental working was essential to reducing the harm related to alcohol and drug use:

“The harms arising from, substance use are not something that can be tackled by the Department of Health alone. They are multi-faceted problems that exist across the whole of our society – poverty and deprivation; homelessness; employment and economic development; mental health and trauma; paramilitarism, community relations and justice; educational attainment, inequalities; and the legacy of the past. Tackling these societal issues will require the whole Executive to operate collectively.”

The new 10 year Substance Use Strategy “Preventing Harm & Empowering Recovery: A Strategic Framework to Tackle the Harm from Substance Use” will become fully operational today.

In supporting the launch of the strategy, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Michael McBride said:

“Over the past ten years, we have seen significant change in the patterns of use of alcohol and other drugs, including an increase in polydrug use, the continuing misuse of prescription medicines, and hazardous alcohol consumption among some groups. We must also consider the impact that COVID-19 has had on certain groups increasing their alcohol intake above safe levels. We must therefore be open to the need to explore new ways to tackle this societal crisis we are caught in. That is why, as well as the vital work of implementing this strategy, the Department will also now begin to take forward work on Minimum Unit Pricing for Alcohol with a view to having a full public consultation to determine whether this population health measure should be introduced in Northern Ireland.”

The new strategy is available on the DoH website at

This strategy replaces the previous substance misuse strategy – the New Strategic Direction for Alcohol & Drugs Phase 2 (NSD Phase 2) – endorsed by the former NI Executive and launched in 2012. ‘New Decade, New Approach’ contains a commitment for the Executive to publish a successor strategy to NSD Phase 2.

A review of the previous Alcohol and Drugs Strategy was completed in 2019 and highlighted a number of positive outcomes:

  • the proportion of adults drinking above the recommended guidelines has reduced (from 26% in 2010/11 to 20% in 2017/18);

  • there was significant reductions in the proportion of young people who had ever drank alcohol (55% in 2007 to 32% in 2016);

  • the proportion of young people who had ever been drunk also fell (55% in 2007 to 45% in 2016); and

  • the percentage of adults who binge drink also reduced over the course of the strategy (38% in 2005 to 31% in 2013).

However the review also indicated that alcohol-related deaths continued to rise over the course of the strategy and alcohol-related admissions to hospital also increased from 9,573 in 2008/09 to 11,636 in 2016/17.

Work began to develop the new strategy in 2020 however with the emergence of COVID-19 this work was paused until the end of July. Since then the new strategy has been subject to a full public consultation and has been co-produced with the help of a wide range of stakeholders –government departments and agencies, health professionals, community and voluntary sector representatives; as well as service users and their families.

The recovery garden has been put together by the hospitals local volunteers, in particular their ladies group, who conceived, designed and prepared the garden themselves as a space for reflection and private conversations. These volunteers have all been utilising treatment services within the hospital and wished to give something back to the hospital and to help others patients undergoing the same difficulties they had been facing.

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